If there's one walk in Italy where you won't get lonely or lost it would be in le Cinque Terre,
on possibly the most popular "walk" in Italy.
This walk is along the pathway that clings to the hillside above the Ligurian sea linking five
picturesque villages. It is not really a walk in the sense of striding out in the countryside,
away from towns, in a rustic and rural environment. There will be no sense of isolation, no
need for signs, though there are indeed plenty. If you are unsure of a turn or direction just
follow the flock of other walkers streaming along the path and up and down the stairs in an
Notwithstanding the crowds, le Cinque Terre form one of the most breathtakingly beautiful
places you will ever find.
Le Cinque Terre, translated as "the five lands", needs little introduction. On the Ligurian
coast, the villages of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore give
their name to the "lands". Each is a pastel coloured picture postcard perched above the
sea, inaccessible by road but linked by train or boat or indeed by footpaths.
The unique characteristics of the coast have led to it being declared a national park and a
UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There are a small number of albergos and villagers have rooms to rent. Around the
waterfronts are many cafes and restaurants where the tables shelter under brightly
Le Cinque Terre
There were Roman settlements here, the
fortified harbours were important strongholds
during the middle ages and, over the years,
marauding pirates sent the villagers into
hiding places in the hills. The hillsides were
terraced behind dry stone walls. Vines, olive
trees and lemons were planted and continue
now to be closely cultivated.
The square, blocky buildings of the villages
crowd together as they climb up the steep
hillsides from picturesque little harbours full
of colourful fishing boats. The houses are
painted in soft shades of pink, orange,
yellow and ochre, like the gelato in tubs in
the cafes. Steep stairs climb up from the
sea and a confusion of narrow streets winds
between the buildings.
Walking in le Cinque Terre
Maps with notes and instructions about the walking paths are available locally. All tracks
are numbered and well signposted on the ground. The most popular is the coastal walk
from Monterosso to Riomaggiore, the Sentiero Azzurro, numbered No 2. It is a five hour
walk if undertaken in one go but a better option is to do it in stages, using the train or ferry
service and allowing time to explore the villages and enjoy a leisurely lunch. There is much
climbing and descending of lots of steps, the most arduous being the descent of 180m to
Monterosso. It is a good idea to do this bit from Vernazza, in the south east, so you will be
going down and not up.
Even though the coastal path is so busy, there are other walks which, because they are
more demanding, are much less crowded. Route No 1 climbs to a height of up to 800m, so
you are way above the coast with even more spectacular views. This can also be extended
into a much longer route, from Levanto to Portovenere. Other paths link Routes 1 and 2 and
go further afield as linear or loop itineraries.
Tickets must be bought to walk the paths and there are manned booths at the entry and
exit points of each town. There is either a Cinque Terre Card which allows you to use the
trails and the trains or simply a trails card. The park authorities reserve the option to close
the trails if they are becoming too crowded.
There is always the possibility also that parts of the pathways may be closed due to rock
falls or dangerous conditions. The disastrous floods of October 2011 almost
wiped parts of le Cinque Terre from the map but fortunately most of the infrastructure has
now been rebuilt.
In October 2011 torrential rainstorms and
mudslides descended on le Cinque Terre
with Vernazza and Monterosso all but wiped
out. Rivers of mud poured down the steep
narrow streets. The ground floor of our
albergo and all other buildings in the
harbour area were completely inundated, all
the small shops that lined the main street
and piazza were swept away or filled with
mud and the embankment wall above the
harbour was like a mini, very muddy Niagara
Falls. The piazza and the harbour were
filled with smashed up boats, cars, trees
and unthinkable debris.
The local community, the government and
the world quickly rallied. Businesses have
been rebuilt and the tourists have kept
coming to show their support so that
tourism could get back on its feet. Not all
the trails have yet been rebuilt and
Vernazza is still being reconstructed with
input from world renowned architects
Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano.
Pictures of the devastation and recovery can be found at this
The storms of October 2011
In May 2000 it was still some weeks away from the full season when
we based ourselves in a small albergo on the waterfront in Vernazza.
Our plan was to explore the coastal walk in stages returning to
Vernazza each day by the train. There were quite a lot of people
about and this was before you had to buy a ticket to walk the paths.
Our hotel bedroom faced the port and looked over the restaurants
which would offer a tempting choice of seafood each evening.
Convivial large tables packed us all together and chit-chat continued
till late at night. We ate delicious seafood and enjoyed the local wine
The first day we walked in a south easterly direction along the
clifftops to arrive first in Corniglia, then on to Manarola with its pretty
little harbour, and finally along the so called Via dell'Amore to
Riomaggiore. We found this last stage rather disappointing, being a
hard edged concrete pathway right at sea level. Riomaggiore
seemed to be lacking the charm of the other villages with few
enticing restaurants so we walked back to Manarola where there
was a great choice of places serving yummy lunches. The train trip
back to Vernazza was barely a ten minute ride.
The next day we went the other direction. Here the path was quite
rough and narrow with a sheer drop into the turquoise ocean, slightly
tricky when passing walkers coming in the other direction. There
would be a slight pause, and then the greetings .... Buongiorno (with
a German accent) .... Buongiorno (with a French accent)....
Buongiorno (with an American accent).
Groups of French and German walkers moved along like a many
legged centipede, walking poles like legs scrambling along beside
them. On the steep climb up from Monterosso they puffed and
panted and hauled themselves up the steps on their poles.
The terraces on the mountain side of the path were planted with
grapevines and lemon trees, dripping with big full lemons destined to
be refined into the local limoncello that restaurateurs plied us with
after dinner every night.
After a lunch of the celebrated local anchovies we explored one of
the other pathways further west where we climbed some a looked
back towards Vernazza and the other villages. Once again the train
speedily returned us to Vernazza.
The following day was market day in Montorosso so we did the walk
again, this time coming back by boat. Stalls selling huge slabs of
parmegiana and fresh fruit and vegetables from the surrounding
hillsides were among the tempting attractions in the market.
As serious walkers we failed, deciding without much reluctance that
the pleasures at sea level outnumbered those of the mountain
pathways. Per un'altra volta, as they say.
On our last night, a storm blew up and we awoke to the noise of
frantic activity as all the fishing boats were lifted out of the water and
onto racks in the piazza. The still, turquoise water had become grey
and choppy with waves breaking over the protective walls of the
harbour. The contrast was astonishing and we watched the storm
rage till it was time to leave. No doubt by evening the tranquillity
would be restored but it was sobering to see how quickly nature
could change the peaceful environment.
Vernazza and its harbour
Main street - Vernazza
Wall decoration, Vernazza
Vernazza from the sea
Boats in the Porto, Vernazza